The ecotourists are coming -- and they are willing to pay. So what are these dollar-wielding eclectic tourists looking for? "Destinations don't matter any more, the tourism product or experience does," asserts Rahula Perera, an ecotourism consultant from Sri Lanka. "Ecotourism offers the opportunity to create a new way of doing business." He points to how the Ranveli resort on the western coast of Sri Lanka achieved a turnaround in a couple of years, when it was transformed from a regular beach to an ecotourism venture. Taking advantage of the mangroves in the area, Perera helped the resort brand itself by offering nature trips, including bird watching through its surrounding wilderness.
The combined viewing value of marine creatures of the exquisite coral atolls of Maldives are in excess of us $19 million estimates a survey. The viewing value of the reef shark alone may be 10 times the entire export value of all sharks products. In addition, scuba diving alone generated in excess of us $41 million in 1996. This represents average net earnings for each resort of approximately us $0.56 million per year. The country thus has a clear interest in maintaining its fragile ecology. If there is a decline in marine wildlife, the Maldives would attract far fewer ecotravellers and ecodollars. Shark fishing for instance, is a profitable venture and Maldives cant afford to lose it (see box: Sharks and tourism).
To avoid diverse cultural impacts from tourism on is conservative islamic society, Maldives limits the tourism zone to uninhabited islands.
A survey in the mid-1990s found that tourism had brought many problems as well, from beach erosion to solid waste disposal and coral reef destruction. But because economy and environment are so interlinked in this resort and divers' paradise, the government stepped in to implement policies for sustainable tourism.
It has established carrying capacity standards for each island, specifying for instance, that the maximum area that can be developed into buildings is 20 per cent of the island area. There are strict guidelines on construction activity. Sustainable energy production and waste disposal are the responsibility of the island resort. As garbage is the tourist economies' nightmare, a few airlines have stepped in so that tourists who fly to the Maldives in these airlines are given a bag and asked to bring to the airport all the waste they produce during their stay. The airlines carries it to the destination, free of cost. Maldives is learning fast that environment is the basis of their business.
Cottage industry interests
The interest in environment is sustained because of tourism. But also, the interest in tourism can only be sustained if there is local interest. This becomes the key to success.
In Costa Rica, nature is a tourism factory. Like Maldives, tourism was this small Central American country's top foreign exchange earner, till computer giant Intel set up its microprocessing plant. In 1995 in Costa Rica, the industry generated over us $650 million per annum -- 7.5 per cent of the country's gdp. Tourism has been built on the development of national parks -- in 1996, of the 781,000 visitors from abroad, nearly 270,000 visited national parks. With this economic interest assured, as much as 31 per cent of the country is under the protected area system and now private individuals are finding that it pays to conserve biodiversity for tourists.
The tourism value chain is still in favour of the airlines and large and international operators. But nevertheless, a substantial proportion stays within the country and is shared. This has lead to increased dependence and also a vested interest in the trade and therefore, also an interest in protecting the environment. Interestingly, over 70 per cent of the hotels in the country have less than 20 rooms. This means that the small lodges near national parks -- do more than their bit to conserve the environmental resources around.
Ecotourism -- built on remote and small-scale nature reserves -- is an opportunity to provide local employment and local economic growth. In this country, everything -- from butterfly farms which export live butterflies, to organic coffee farms, to rich and deep rainforests, to live volcano to river swamps -- are all marketed and sold. Nature is truly a cottage industry here. And a profitable one too.